Retranslating the Liturgy: Pope Francis Changes the Law (Episcopal Authority, Part I)

Q: Some ladies at our parish are all aflutter because they read somewhere that the Vatican has changed the rules on translation of liturgical rites into the vernacular.  Specifically, bishops are now permitted to translate the Mass and other rites without the Vatican’s involvement, or so these ladies heard.

I told them that I really doubt the Vatican did that, because it would mean any bishop could change just about any word in the Mass and the rites of the sacraments … [and] that could affect the validity of the sacraments, like you mentioned in “Is My Confession Valid, If the Priest Changes the Words of Absolution?”  It seems to me this would also destroy the Church’s unity if every diocese was doing something different.

These ladies, however, insisted to me that they read about this in two different Catholic publications….  Do you know what they’re talking about?  Did the Vatican just unleash a whirlwind? –Corinne

A: It’s fairly easy to figure out what Corinne’s fellow-parishioners must have read about—and since it’s rather technical, we can forgive them for failing to grasp exactly what the Vatican recently changed.  It pertains to the process to translate liturgical books, and then obtain approval of those translations, as is laid out in canon 838.

The newest Vatican document piggybacks on a motu proprio issued by Pope Francis in 2017, changing parts of that particular canon.  That document, in turn, altered some aspects of the translation-process established by then-Pope John Paul II in 2001.  For clarity’s sake, it may be best to start at the very beginning, and examine these events chronologically.  Then the latest document should be easier for everyone to comprehend.

When the current Code of Canon Law was promulgated by John Paul II in 1983, canon 838 looked like this:

Canon 838.1. The direction of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church which resides in the Apostolic See and, according to the norm of law, the diocesan bishop.
2. It is for the Apostolic See to order the sacred liturgy of the universal Church, publish liturgical books and review their translations in vernacular languages, and exercise vigilance that liturgical regulations are observed faithfully everywhere.
3. It pertains to the conferences of bishops to prepare and publish, after the prior review of the Holy See, translations of liturgical books in vernacular languages, adapted appropriately within the limits defined in the liturgical books themselves.
4. Within the limits of his competence, it pertains to the diocesan bishop in the Church entrusted to him to issue liturgical norms which bind everyone.

In general, it was clear at the time that when it comes to official translations of the Mass, the Scripture readings used during Mass and other liturgical events, and the sacramental translationrites, it was the Vatican which was in the driver’s seat.  John Paul II’s 1988 Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus further specified that within the Vatican, the dicastery with competence in this particular area is the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, or CDW (PB 64).  With regard specifically to the translation of the Scriptures, however, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) almost invariably gets involved too: that’s because the mistranslation of biblical passages can easily lead to confusion about Catholic doctrine, and doctrinal matters fall under the purview of the CDF.

True, canon 838 provided that episcopal conferences around the world had authority to “prepare” translations, and to publish them “after the prior review of the Holy See” (see “Are Catholics Supposed to Abstain from Meat Every Friday?” for more on what an episcopal conference, a.k.a. a conference of bishops, is and does).  But as per paragraphs 2 and 3, Rome could withhold its approval of a conference of bishops’ translation and thus prevent its publication—and sometimes it has done exactly that (more on this later).

If you don’t think about it too hard, the issue of translation might not strike you as all that important in the life of the Church.  Readers who are multilingual, however, will appreciate that it’s often possible to translate simple, concrete statements word-for-word from one language to another—but when it comes to writings on subtle, abstract topics (like theology and philosophy), obtaining an accurate translation can be a far trickier business!  Sometimes a literal word-for-word translation from one language to another is just plain wrong, and/or is completely unintelligible, so it’s necessary for translators to find another way to express the sense of the original words.  Other times, a literal translation might be understandable, but it sounds clumsy, or antiquated, or affected, or low-brow and even stupid—so a translator may reasonably conclude that the words should be translated more loosely/differently.

Thus the method used by the Church to translate the Scriptures and the Roman Missal is a serious matter indeed.  When we’re dealing with the Word of God, and the words used in the valid administration of the sacraments, it’s critical to make sure we don’t end up with translations that are so loose that they change the theological sense of the original text, and mislead the faithful as to what they really mean.

For this reason, in 2001 the CDW (under John Paul II) published Liturgiam authenticam, an Instruction “on the use of vernacular languages in the publication of the books of the Roman liturgy.”  As can be seen from its title, this document focused on the correct approach to take when translating the Church’s official liturgical books from the original Latin into the languages of the world.  Providing general guidelines, it noted that

The words of the Sacred Scriptures, as well as the other words spoken in liturgical celebrations, especially in the celebration of the Sacraments, are not intended primarily to be a sort of mirror of the interior dispositions of the faithful; rather, they express truths that transcend the limits of time and space….
[T]he translation of the liturgical texts of the Roman Liturgy is not so much a work of creative innovation as it is of rendering the original texts faithfully and accurately into the vernacular language. While it is permissible to arrange the wording, the syntax and the style in such a way as to prepare a flowing vernacular text suitable to the rhythm of popular prayer, the original text, insofar as possible, must be translated integrally and in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrases or glosses. Any adaptation to the characteristics or the nature of the various vernacular languages is to be sober and discreet. (19-20)

Many Catholic scholars, such as these Americans, were unhappy with this approach to the translation of sacred texts, arguing for highly technical reasons that “such procedure … would produce an inferior product.”  (It’s worth noting at this point that their disagreement was methodological, not theological.  This should not be construed as an argument about Catholic doctrine.)  But since canon 838 left the authority for translating the Church’s liturgical books in the hands of Rome, and Pope John Paul II said that this was the correct way to go about translating them, there wasn’t much that theologians and Scripture scholars like these could do about it.  As Catholics, they were obliged to defer respectfully to higher ecclesiastical authority on the subject.

In subsequent years, unfortunately, this led to some awkward incidents in which conferences of bishops—bishops who were native speakers of the language used in the liturgy in their region—were being told the “correct” way to translate various Latin words and phrases into their mother tongue by Vatican officials who weren’t necessarily masters of their language at all.  Japanese bishops, for example, protested that they were put in a secondary role when Rome mandated the best way to translate liturgical books into Japanese.  And both French and German bishops’ conferences subsequently sought the required approbation for new translations, which the Vatican refused to grant.

But in 2017, Pope Francis issued a new motu proprio document entitled Magnum principium, which changed canon 838 and thus affected this situation directly.  The motu proprio provided this new text of canon 838.2 and .3, with changes reflected in bold:

Canon 838.2. It is for the Apostolic See to order the sacred liturgy of the universal Church, publish liturgical books, recognize adaptations approved by the Episcopal Conference according to the norm of law, and exercise vigilance that liturgical regulations are observed faithfully everywhere.
3. It pertains to the Episcopal Conferences to faithfully prepare versions of the liturgical books in vernacular languages, suitably accommodated within defined limits, and to approve and publish the liturgical books for the regions for which they are responsible after the confirmation of the Apostolic See.

Paragraphs 1 and 4 are unchanged.

While most of this canon’s wording has remained the same, the alterations are significant!  In contrast to what was found in the original text of canon 838, an episcopal conference (not Rome) now has authority to approve adaptations of liturgical texts and to publish them—with the “confirmation” of the Vatican, which is to “recognize” those adaptations.  Now, it is the conferences of bishops, and not the Vatican, which are in the driver’s seat with regard to preparing translations of the Church’s liturgical books.

The then-Secretary of CDW provided a commentary on Magnum principium on the same day that it was issued, noting among other things that:

The confirmatio is an authoritative act by which the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments ratifies the approval of the Bishops, leaving the responsibility of translation, understood to be faithful, to the doctrinal and pastoral munus of the Conferences of Bishops.  In brief, the confirmatio, ordinarily granted based on trust and confidence, supposes a positive evaluation of the faithfulness and congruence of the texts produced with respect to the typical Latin text, above all taking account of the texts of greatest importance (e.g. the sacramental formulae, which require the approval of the Holy Father, the Order of Mass, the Eucharistic Prayers and the Prayers of Ordination, which all require a detailed review). (Note on canon 838 of the Code of Canon Law)

Well, it’s one thing to announce officially that a new procedure is henceforth to be used; it’s another to figure out how this new procedure is going to work in practice.  What are bishops actually supposed to do now?  How do they go about submitting a new translation to the Vatican for the required “confirmation” and/or “recognition”—and at the same time, how is the Vatican to assess the translation and when should it determine that this confirmation/recognition should be granted?

This is where the brand-new 2021 document, which the ladies at Corinne’s church have apparently heard about, comes into play.  The CDW has issued a decree “giving effect to the dispositions of canon 838 of the Code of Canon Law.”  (By the way, it’s ironic that the topic of this decree involves translations of church documents into other languages—because the phrase “giving effect to the dispositions of canon 838” isn’t a particularly clear English translation itself, is it?)  The decree tells us right up-front that “in accord with the mind of the motu proprio [Magnum principium] the first part of the present Decree reiterates, interprets and amends the norms, the discipline, and the procedures regarding the translation of liturgical books and their adaptation” (page 1).

Like most procedural laws and norms, the decree is dense and often tedious reading; and if you’re not particularly well versed in either the structure of episcopal conferences, or the field of document-translation, reading it might prove to be little more than a cure for insomnia.  That does not mean it is poorly written, unclear or unimportant; it just means that it is hard for the average Catholic to understand.

For those who work at an episcopal conference, however, it can be extremely useful!  For example, paragraph 8 explains which kinds of translations need to obtain Rome’s recognitio, and which require confirmatio, thus clarifying one aspect of canon 838.2-3 which perhaps is otherwise a bit vague.  And paragraphs 10, 18 and 34 (among others) provide guidance on who within the episcopal conference is supposed to be involved in the process, and who exactly is to sign the letter submitting the translation to the Vatican for its review and approval.

If you’re bored already, you can see why the ladies at Corinne’s parish are confused about the significance of this very technical document.  What can safely be said is that it definitely does not give diocesan bishops authorization “to translate the Mass and other rites without the Vatican’s involvement,” as Corinne put it.  She is absolutely right that changing the words of the consecration of the Mass (see “What Makes a Mass Invalid? Part I”), and of the sacramental rites (as discussed in “Inclusive Language and Baptismal Validity,” and the abovementioned “Is My Confession Valid, If the Priest Changes the Words of Absolution?”), could potentially invalidate these liturgical actions, which the Church naturally wants to avoid at all costs.

As should be clear by this point, if conferences of bishops wish to amend/update translations of the liturgical books, they now have a process for doing that—but if Rome subsequently declines to grant the necessary recognition/confirmation, these translations cannot be used.  So what should we conclude about the concerns raised by the ladies at Corinne’s parish?

In theory, yes, it is entirely possible that the bishops of a particular country might agree among themselves on a new, “updated” translation of some liturgical text which is misleading and/or even changes the meaning in a doctrinally significant way.  But as the law stands now, they cannot use that new text in the liturgy without first obtaining approval from Rome—which can block it definitively.  The process may have changed since the days of Pope John Paul II, but the need to first receive an official thumbs-up from the Vatican remains.

It is vital that Vatican officials refrain from simply rubber-stamping any and every request for recognition/confirmation of a new translation, without examining it carefully first.  But if you think about it, that was likewise true in the past, before Pope Francis changed the wording of canon 838: the appropriate Vatican congregation(s) could object and put a halt to the approval of a poor translation.  Then, as now, Rome’s final decision was critical—it’s just that the process of creating a translation and getting it okayed by Rome is now different.

Thus Corinne’s fears, and the fears of the ladies of her parish, are largely unfounded.  There’s no way for an individual bishop to lawfully impose a new translation of any liturgical text in his diocese on his own initiative!  As Corinne rightly points out, the Church’s teachings are the same everywhere, and in every language, and nobody has legal authority to replace a sound translation of her liturgy with a theologically unsound one.

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